Brazilianification is a term that was coined to describe the process in which the middle class disappears and the gulf between the upper and lower classes widens. On my recent trip to São Paulo (where we’ll have our next global IDEAS CITY conference), I found vital signs of a reversed Brazilianification—prosperity percolating through the lower strata of Brazilian society. It was quite a different energy from fourteen years ago when I briefly lived there. While America is undoing its middle class as quickly as it created it (as noted by the Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen), Brazil, largely through government regulations, is making strides towards improving social justice and building up a middle class. And art is part of that process.
One essential player in this effort is SESC (or the Social Service of Commerce), a private, nonprofit organization that was founded by Brazilian business leaders in 1946 to create and operate arts, culture, sport, education, and health centers all over Brazil. SESC still gets its funding from a 1.5 percent tax imposed on (and by!) Brazilian companies.
SESC centers are generally located in working-class neighborhoods and contain any combination of exhibition spaces, galleries, theaters, gyms, swimming pools, leisure areas (“the right to do nothing,” as one SESC executive explained to me), restaurants, workshops, health centers, and other facilities. The services and arts events are free or minimally priced. Renowned artists, both from Brazil and abroad, including the Paris-based Théâtre du Soleil led by Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Wilson, Olafur Eliasson, and many others, have shown and performed at SESC.
I visited two SESC centers in São Paulo (there are thirty-five in larger São Paulo alone), one of which was a former factory complex that was converted into a striking cultural, educational, and sports center by the legendary architect Lina Bo Bardi. At the time of my visit, Isaac Julien’s “Geopoetics” was showing as part of Videobrasil, a biennial arts festival mapping electronic art mostly from the geopolitical south. As I arrived, I saw a father and his young daughter sitting in rapt attention in front of a large-scale, multichannel screening. At the end of my tour one hour later, they were still sitting there.
But it was at SESC Belenzinho that I had a revelatory moment.
Imagine this: a dance company is rehearsing in a state-of-the-art performance space. The stage is a see-through glass floor, which also happens to be the ceiling of a swimming pool, where swimmers can follow the dance performance from a fish perspective. Right next to the open stage is a health center, where visitors registering or waiting for treatment can catch glances of the performance. Several floors worth of workshops, classes, and conferences built around an open space feature galleries that overlook the stage from where participants, students, and teachers can also observe the spectacle.
So while the building was buzzing with activities that had little to do with art but everything to do with social services, sports, education, as well as eating and sunbathing, at the center of it all was the art. The stage was visible from almost every vantage point in the building—from below, above, and next to it—making the art open, primal, transparent, and accessible to all.
SESC is not the only regulated support system for the arts in Brazil. Ley Rouanet is a statewide law that encourages and monitors tax-deductible cultural investments by firms to help finance cultural projects. The Brazilian government and a big section of the business community seem to believe in art as a transformative and beneficial experience that everyone should have access to, as important as education and health. Mind you, the contributions to SESC are self-imposed. It seems as though Brazil is changing the narrative, where a section of the powerful transcend their own interests and think bigger, looking out for the wellbeing of the community at large and serving society through the arts.